200 Year Old Watercolours Purchased: Australia

Back in November 2011 the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales in Sydney) purchased six albums containing 741 watercolours of Australia’s birds, fish, and plants some are now extinct, and these watercolours are the only record of them.


Photo by Stephen Cooper (from The Telegraph picture gallery)

The artists of these drawings are unknown, but a collector by the name of Aylmer Bourke Lambert bought these watercolours it is believed in 1795, before returning back to England, and bound them into six albums.

When Aylmer Bourke Lambert died in 1842, the albums were purchased by the 13th Earl of Derby, and have been kept by the family at Knowsley Hall near Liverpool in the UK.


Photos by Stephen Cooper (from The Telegraph picture gallery)

The Mitchell Library purchased these magnificent albums form the 19th Earl of Derby for $7.1 Million with the financial help from TAL, Dai-ichi-Life, the NSW Government and the State Library Foundation.


Photo by the State Library of NSW (from The Telegraph picture gallery)

I think it is wonderful to see some of Australia’s History was treasured and well kept, and now finally returned.

For anyone that is in Sydney or are going to Sydney and would like to see these drawings they will be on Display at the Library until mid February 2012.
The Mitchell Library is located in Macquarie Street, Sydney.

See more of these watercolours in The Telegraph picture gallery.
Mitchell Library web site
There is a very good article about the purchase of these watercolours in The Telegraph.

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49 Responses to 200 Year Old Watercolours Purchased: Australia

  1. E.C. says:

    Magnificent. It’s ashame the artists didn’t sign them, but it’s a blessing a collector gathered them and kept them safe. It’s sad some of the species are extinct. Thanks for sharing.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi E.C.
      The watercolours are so beautifully drawn it is a shame we don’t know who done the art work. It is great we now have a bit of a record on these extinct species.

  2. kindra says:

    These are beautiful .. amazing work! What a treasure, especially since some are extinct! Good thing that they bought them..

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi kindra,
      Yes I think it was excellent the library was able to buy these, it is a very interesting look at some of Australias history.
      Thank You for visiting and your comment.

  3. Thank you for posting this. It is so good to see this article and the pictures themselves.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi weisserwatercolours,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. The work these unkown artists have done are really beautiful, and I think you will agree we are very lucky they were bought by people that looked after them, they are in perfect condition.
      Thank You very much for visiting and your comment.

  4. travelrat says:

    I love these … I think, in the style of Bewick or Audubon? … and, if prints were available, I’d seriously consider buying some.

    Even in modern bird-books, (by coincidence, I have the Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds by me at the moment), paintings and drawings are used for illustration, rather than photographs.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi travelrat,
      That is unreal that they have used paintings and drawings instead of photos in a modern book.
      Who knows down the track, they may make some prints up or something for sale, there is a lot of interest in the watercolours. 😀

  5. Selma says:

    Aren’t they beautiful, Mags? Such treasures. I feel so good knowing they will be looked after!

  6. malc50 says:

    Good to see these National treasures back home again, Mags.

  7. Rebekah says:

    Hi Mags,
    Oh my … what a find!!! That’s marvellous … and imagine we talked about extinct species just the other day! I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see Australia — I hope so — but in that case I’d love to see them.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi Rebekah,
      Yes it was only the other day we were talking about extinct species, it’s great that an artist or artists had the insight to paint all of these things, even the paintings of the plants are just so well done.
      Maybe one day you will get to come to OZ, you just never know. 😀

  8. The Emu says:

    Great to know they have returned to Australia
    I hazard a guess from the date 1795 and Australia’s settlement date of 1788 that there is all possibility that they may have been done by a Botanist from the first fleet or more romantically , by a convict who may have had a background in artwork or forgery or some such background as the time frame is approx 8 years , whichever , they are beautiful works of art from Australia’s past
    Emu

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi The Emu,
      Yes that would be a very good guess, the Library states “First Fleet era drawings” as an explanation, so they could of been done by convicts or a Botanist or both, it would of been really good if even 1 drawing had a name on it. I can’t get over how well they have kept, they look like they could of been painted yesterday.

  9. aFrankAngle says:

    A good example of simple beauty.

  10. munchow says:

    This truly is a treasure. From your photos here the watercolours simply look stunning. It’s always nice when treasures like this are kept for later generations. Thanks for letting all those of us who won’t visit Sydney in the near future have a glimpse of the marvels.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi munchow,
      They really are a treasure, items like this I feel are priceless as they just cannot be replaced. I agree it is great that they are here for future generations.

  11. barb19 says:

    It’s wonderful that these 200 year old water colours have been so well cared for and preserved, but what’s even better is that they are now back in Australia, where they belong.
    Great post Mags!

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi barb19,
      That is definitely the icing on the cake to have them back here in OZ.
      From the Library web site:-
      In 1799 three of the bird volumes were lent to leading ornithologist Dr John Latham who used them to describe new Australian birds in supplements to his groundbreaking books, General Synopsis of Birds (1801) and Index Ornithologicus (1801).
      There is a lot of history attached to these drawings.

  12. Thank Heaven that the Stately Homes of England cost so much to maintain. Otherwise, we may never have been able to buy these back.

  13. Great story all around – from the fact that the books still exist to having them back in OZ. I am most intrigued that the books look brand new – and the colors of the images still so vibrant, as if they were done recently.

    Makes me want to hop a plane and fly 24 hours to Sydney to see them in person at the Mitchell.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi EOSR,
      It was mentioned that they were so well preserved because of the type of paint that was used at the time, plus of course they were very well looked after by previous owners.

  14. RoseCityRemona says:

    Very beautiful and precious!
    Thanx for sharing these very special pieces,
    RoseCityRemona

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi RoseCityRemona,
      It’s wonderful when someone finally finds something like this, the Library must of been over the moon when they finally arrived in OZ.

  15. El Guapo says:

    Beautiful, as art and as history. Hope they become a permanent display!

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi El Guapo,
      Yes it would be nice if the Library did not hide them away somewhere. It would be good I feel for some students to be able to see these and maybe learn a bit about some of the animals and plants that existed 200 years ago.

  16. Ianus Christius says:

    This is a gold mine for all ornithologists, especialy those seeking all that they can find about extinct species. Also, nice photos.

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  18. Fergiemoto says:

    They seem to be well preserved for their age!

  19. bronxboy55 says:

    What an amazing collection. Thank you for posting this, Mags.

  20. What a beautiful glimpse into Australia’s natural history! A very talented artist must have created these watercolors. It’s good to know they are back where they belong, and that they were well cared for while in England. Priceless treasures – how does one put a price on something like this?

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi Barbara,
      I agree whoever painted these pieces was very much talented, they are priceless as far as Australia is concerned because it is a part of our history that cannot be replaced. But not priceless to a collector.

  21. Margie says:

    $7.1 million dollars! An awful lot of money to pay for storage fees!

  22. souldipper says:

    Mags, those drawings are where they ought to have stayed in the first place. I doubt the Earl of Derby paid the equivalent to 7 million dollars when he took them back to England. I think an equivalent amount would have been much more fair. In fact, many people of means donate treasures back to their rightful owners!

    It’s tough being generous I guess.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi souldipper,
      I agree some collectors do donate things back to arts etc. I don’t know the whole story to this one, but the watercolours were up for auction at Christie’s, when the Library was informed about them, I don’t know if the Library had to bid at the auction for them or not. The article just mentioned the price paid, I’m not sure the Earl knew exactly what they were, just old watercolours.

  23. dearrosie says:

    The best part of the story is although they were stored in an old, most probably draughty and damp house in England, they are in perfect condition. Museum’s store treasures like this in air conditioned isolation chambers.

    • magsx2 says:

      Hi dearrosie,
      Yes even the Library was surprised by the condition of the watercolours, it is truly amazing when you think about it. The Library seems to think it was because of the type of paint that was used.

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